Israeli Election Produces Yet Another Stalemate

A defaced electoral poster for Israeli prime minister and candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, in the Arab city of Kfar Qassem in central Israel, on 22 March 2021. Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images.
A defaced electoral poster for Israeli prime minister and candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu, in the Arab city of Kfar Qassem in central Israel, on 22 March 2021. Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images.

A fourth election in two years has yet again failed to produce a conclusive result. Some of the results form part of a consistent pattern, but there are also some unexpected twists that the pollsters had not foreseen which will prove crucial for the formation and composition of a coalition government.

Of the 13 parties that will serve in the Knesset, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won 30 of the 120 seats up for grabs, followed by the centrist party Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, which won 17 seats. There is also an array of smaller parties representing a range of interests, ideologies and sectors in Israeli society, from Jewish ultra-Orthodox to Islamist, from peace and human rights parties to the ultra-right xenophobic and homophobic Kahanist party. Naturally, this makes the task of forming a coalition – let alone one with a coherent agenda – an excruciating one. However, it is Netanyahu’s corruption trial on three cases of bribery, fraud and breach of trust that is the underlying cause of the current political deadlock.

In recent Israeli elections the overwhelming demarcation line has been between the 'anyone but Bibi' and the 'only Bibi' camps, while even the most profound ideological differences have become secondary. Make no mistake, the right won this election comfortably and could lead a stable coalition for a full four-year term – were it not for Netanyahu. The stalemate is now almost complete between his diehard supporters, who are willing to turn a blind eye to how he manipulates the political and justice systems to derail his corruption trial and avoid possible jail time, and those who refuse to serve under his premiership, including former Likud colleagues and political allies who fell out with him and went on to form new parties.

There are a number of key takeaways from this election, some of which are also likely to have a long-term impact on Israeli society. Firstly, the success of the ultra-right, including the disciples of the late Rabbi Kahane, should set warning lights flashing over the democratic future of Israel. While Netanyahu may have let this regressive, racist, xenophobic and homophobic genie out of the bottle for his own political gain, putting it back might prove extremely difficult.

Secondly, another unexpected outcome – at least according to pre-election opinion polls – was the relative success of the two more social-democratic parties, Labour and Meretz, the latter of which champions peace with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution and is also a strong advocate for universal and equal human rights. Both parties seemed to struggle to reach the electoral threshold but eventually performed beyond even their own expectations. While neither is yet in a position to resume the leading role they once played in the country’s history, these results provide them with a strong foundation to build upon in introducing a more progressive agenda.

Thirdly, voter fatigue caused by the political impasse produced the lowest voter turnout for nearly a decade. There is an intrinsic paradox in that Israelis don’t believe their votes will make a difference, yet this chronic impasse is merely a reflection of their repeated choices in four elections. Low turnout was particularly noticeable among Palestinian-Israelis, who feel let down not only by the split in the Joint Arab List alliance, but also by the refusal of the Jewish parties to include their representatives in a government, or even to rely on their support to back up any coalition. This blatant exclusion of a fifth of the country’s population from the centres of power will only lead to the further alienation of Israel’s Arabs, who already suffer from persistent discrimination, under-investment in infrastructure and high levels of violent crime, issues that are largely ignored by the government.

Over the next few weeks or even months, we will see the customary bargaining take place as Israeli parties attempt to form a coalition against all odds. There are several possible scenarios, but none of them suggest a stable and durable government. A successfully negotiated coalition would result either from those who have pledged not to serve in a Netanyahu government reneging on their promise – as was the case last year with Benny Gantz and his Blue and White Party – or from Knesset members deserting one bloc for another. Both these scenarios are morally indefensible and would further undermine people’s trust in politics and politicians.

A third possible scenario would entail the 'anyone but Bibi' bloc in the Knesset passing legislation to prevent a defendant in a criminal case from holding the office of prime minister. This would pave the way for successful coalition talks with a number of potential outcomes. If this does not happen, a fifth election is on the cards, but it would make a complete farce of good governance and only deepen divisions in society.

In this situation, it is the people who are the victims of bad governance, as their country is held hostage by the personal interests of its prime minister while also battling the disastrous impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Not to mention the fact that any talk about peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians remains a pipedream. While he is far from the sole cause of Israel’s inability to address its present and future challenges, Netanyahu epitomizes this more than anyone. As long as he is around, the country cannot move forward.

Professor Yossi Mekelberg, Senior Consulting Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.

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